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Times – exciting, but enormously challenging

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The next two weeks will be very big ones for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Next Monday, February 6, the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Hon Dr Ralph Gonsalves will present his Budget for the year 2017, following the debate in Parliament on Monday of this week on the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure. However, even this major highlight of the political calendar must play second fiddle to the public excitement and long anticipation of the opening of the Argyle International Airport (AIA).

Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the importance of the national Budget, irrespective of one’s views on the specific content of the proposals. Budgets are not drawn up in isolation, nor are they purely local propositions. If a Budget is to be realistic and truthful, it must consider the wider context, regionally and internationally, in which serious economic and social programmes are to be formulated and implemented.

That context, and the Government’s response to it, should dictate both the content of the narrative and the specific proposals in our Budget. We do not exist in blissful isolation, each major factor, local, regional or international, must have its bearing on the practicalities of the Budget measures proposed. It is much more than the figures in the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure, approved by Parliament last Monday night; it is also their relevance to the wider global and regional situation that makes them appropriate or not.

For instance, the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is not just a matter for the UK and the EU; it has lots of bearing on our own relations with the UK and the European Union. In many ways, some not yet generally recognized, BREXIT also creates multiple challenges to all the nations in the hemisphere, for they will all be affected. In addition, there is the “Trump” factor, especially as both those key components of the Anglo-Saxon transatlantic equation find it necessary to lean on each other to try and minimize any possible fall-out from their policies and direction.

So, while it is necessary to scrutinize the 2017 Budget in relation to our own local and community needs, we cannot afford to ignore the wider economic and social context. The Budget must address itself to responses on a regional and even international level to the threats we face. The Budget address itself will indicate how much attention we are paying to these over-arching factors.

While we are swamped daily by the news of the chaotic situation in the USA, brought about by the new administration, it is the rift between the UK and the EU which demands urgent attention. In 2008, the member nations of CARICOM, along with the Dominican Republic, signed an Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, providing for duty-free access to the European market. However, in the case of the CARICOM nations, while the EPA is with the European union, for historical reasons our major market within the EU is the UK.

Britain’s “divorce” from the EU leaves us with an EPA in which there is legal access to the EU markets, but practically, for us, the EU market has been, principally, the UK. When Britain leaves, we must either radically be prepared to access markets in the EU, or work out with the UK an agreement which would ensure the same level of access to UK markets as prevailed before BREXIT. Unfortunately, Britain, with far bigger economic headaches than our own concerns, does not appear to be giving any priority to the challenges facing countries in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping.

The UK, faced with problems of its own making, has made it clear that getting trade agreements with the USA, and, as it spelt out in its 12-point BREXIT plan, the need “to increase significantly its trade with the fastest-growing export markets in the world”, clearly does not rank the small and struggling economies of the Caribbean high on its list.

This is not a situation that we can handle alone, nor can be addressed by Budgetary measures. It must be built into our perspectives of the way forward. Historically, when we speak of extra-regional markets, the UK and the USA, along with Canada, predominate. Are we prepared for an “America-first” or a BREXIT? Our dreams of the Argyle International Airport affording us greater air access rest on more penetration to New York, Miami, Atlanta and London than to Frankfurt or Prague or Lisbon. Can we make the adjustments?

These are but some of the issues which underlie the 2017 Budget and our grand achievement of the operationalization of the international airport. It is to be hoped that both in the presentation of the Budget itself and the responses, our Parliamentarians will keep the big picture in sight and not lose their way in narrow partisanship.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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